The Return Home to Vietnam: An Editor’s Journey

Editor’s note: The following is a retelling of  Arts & Entertainment  editor Juliana Kampf’s ten-day travel to Vietnam with her family. 


At 6 a.m. 21-year-old Kim Loan Tran stepped out of her home in Saigon and began the long walk to her first job of the day. She worked as a desk clerk at the Meyer Court Bachelor Officer Quarter. As she walked along the road in her uniform áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese long-sleeved shirt that goes past your knees but splits on both sides at the waist with matching flowing pants underneath, she clutched an umbrella; it was her only protection against whatever lurked in the shadows of the early morning.

The smell of fresh bread lingered in the air from the bakery down the street. When she finally reached it Kim stopped in to get a mini baguette for her lunch and made the rest of her journey to Meyer Court.

After a long morning of checking in officers and answering questions, it was time for her to go to her second job at the Five Oceans Hotel.

Photo from Richard C. Harris, Jr. Collection – Vietnam Center and Archives

It was a warm July afternoon when Richard Thrams walked into the Five Oceans Hotel for lunch. He was an American Peace Corps volunteer and lived just outside of the city in Gò Vấp, the countryside, teaching agriculture to the villagers.

Photo from Lansing State Journal

It didn’t take long for Kim to catch Richard’s eye, and it took an even shorter time for him to start making conversation with her. They began speaking regularly, until almost a year later they decided to get married.

They were to get married on June 15th, 1968. It was Richard’s birthday. It was a small wedding held in a Catholic church right across from the place Kim had gone to high school in Saigon. They could only have immediate family and a few close friends at the wedding. Too many people were not allowed in one place at one time in the city without a permit because tensions were rising in the midst of the war.

In order to celebrate the wedding, they took the party to the countryside in Gò Vấp where the villagers helped give them a big wedding party along with the help of Kim’s family.

Soon after the wedding, Kim and Richard came to America where they eventually moved to Jackson, Michigan.

Kim already had a daughter, Thuy, from her previous marriage. But it wouldn’t take long for two more daughters to find their way into her and Richard’s lives, Jan and Patricia.

Kim and Richard Thrams, 1991.



The Journey

A piercing alarm sounded from the phone next to my pillow that was supposed to wake me up, but my eyes were already open. It was finally 6 a.m. It was finally February 7th, 2018. We were finally going to Vietnam.

I hopped out of bed and peaked around the sheet that was covering my window. Fresh snow blanketed the streets. I padded across my room and dug into my jam-packed suitcase to find some comfortable clothes for the 20-hour journey that lay ahead.

As I walked downstairs, the house was already alive with lights and the clicking of my dogs’ paws running across the wooden floors. My mom and my brother, Bobby, were in the dinning room packing up the last of their things.

In a matter of two hours, everyone was showered, packed and ready to go. We piled into the car and headed for my Aunt Jan’s house. There we shoved all of our things into my aunt’s Escalade and six of us piled into the seats to make our way to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

My mom, brother and I made our ways through security and waited at the gate for the rest of the family. When they arrived my grandma, Kim, was with them.

We eventually made our way onto the plane and ascended into the sky. After 15 hours we landed in Seoul, South Korea with less than an hour to make it to our connecting flight. As we flew over Vietnam, the sky and ground were black except for small orange rectangles that would pop up every once in a while. Five hours later we landed in Saigon.

Unfortunately, we were only there for the night. The next morning we boarded another plane to Đà Lạt, the city of flowers. The airport in Đà Lạt was the smallest airport I had ever seen. We got off of the plane in the middle of the runway.

“The last time I was here this airport was only a third of this size,” my grandma reflected.

We all looked at each other with shocked expressions.

Two taxis took us to the Terracotta Resort in the mountains of Đà Lạt. We got our own house on a lake. Not long after we arrived, we made our way to the restaurant at the resort for some lunch.

“Mom,” my Aunt Jan asked Grandma, “are you excited we’re here?”

“Yes!” my grandma exclaimed. “I didn’t want to spend the whole time at home being so excited that I couldn’t think of anything else so I kept myself distracted by finishing that entire book of Sudoku the kids got me for Christmas.”

There was a tremor in her voice. It had been over 40 years since my grandma had been in Vietnam.

Đà Lạt

After lunch we decided to make our way into the city. We rode a shuttle through the mountains. Farms were planted right into the sides of the mountains. Tall, skinny and colorful homes perched on cliffs and settled into valleys. Old government buildings sat silent and gated off.

“My sister used to live here,” my grandma said. “Her and her husband and kids moved here. They had a taxi business and hoped to make more money here, but they eventually moved back to Saigon when that didn’t work out,” she laughed.

The shuttle dropped us off at a gas station on the outskirts of a park in the middle of the city. We trekked through the rundown park and came up to the first Vietnamese street I would have to cross on foot.

Streets of Vietnam

I’ve been scared of crossing streets almost my entire life, but this was a whole other beast. There were no crosswalks, no stoplights, and no way to cross except to step into four lanes of traffic. Mopeds zipped by, piled with goods, flowers and even people. Small trucks pushed their way through the chaos seamlessly.

My mom saw the fear in my eyes. “You just have to go when you see your chance. You can’t stop or hesitate because they’ll think you’re letting them go. Just keep walking and they’ll slow down or go around you,” she said.

‘Easier said than done,’ I thought. I was still unsure how this was supposed to work when all of a sudden everyone was walking out into the street unknowingly leaving me behind. I stood alone on the sidewalk as everyone made it to the other side of the street.

I looked to my left and waited for a small opening, counted to three, and stepped onto the street. I made my way across without a hitch. And as a family we made our way into the street markets filled with fresh produce, bread, questionable fish that wasn’t always dead, and meats that vendors were constantly shooing flies away from.

Grandma was already chatting up the lady sitting at her fruit stand. I hadn’t heard her speak Vietnamese since I was little.

Weasel Coffee

Our first major excursion in Đà Lạt was to the Trai Ham Đà Lạt Weasel Coffee farm. Coffee is one of Vietnam’s major exports and can be found in every corner of the country. The farm is built into the mountainside with a fantastic view. You can sample different kinds of coffee, teas, and browse through the shop that’s filled to the brim with different handmade fabrics and trinkets.

It’s called the “Weasel Coffee” farm because, of course, weasels are an integral part of the coffee harvesting process. Basically the farmers feed the coffee berries to bunches of weasels. The acid in the weasels’ stomachs then removes the outermost layers of the coffee bean and the beans are then collected, cleaned, and roasted after they’ve been digested. Dogs are housed at the farm to help corral the weasels back into their cages.

Elephant Waterfall

After we left the farm we headed for the Elephant Waterfall. The only convenient view of the falls is from the top, but in order to get the complete spectacular view you have to climb down the side to stand at the base. The way down starts off easy, first there’s a bridge, some stone stairs, and then some stairs carved into the side of the waterfall. The rest is pretty treacherous. The only form of safety on your way down is an old shaky hand rail.

I found myself shaking the whole way down because I was so terrified I was going to fall, but then on the way back up I was shaking again from being so tired. I got a few scrapes and bruises, but mainly I got a fantastic view.


It was at the falls that we had our first coconuts from Vietnam, one of the more prominent beverages ranking almost as closely as coffee.

“Having fresh coconuts again was one of the things on my bucket list,” my grandma exclaimed as she took a sip from the straw poking out of her coconut.

My brother and I shared one after the long and taxing journey down and back up the waterfall. I still have cravings for coconuts almost every day now. Luckily you can pretty much get a coconut anywhere you go in Vietnam.

Silk Worms

After leaving Elephant Waterfall we headed straight for a silk factory located in the village nearby. And when  I say factory, it was more like a small store in the front and a big barn in the back where workers were collecting the silk spun by silk worms and putting it through huge machines that would spin it into rolls to be used to make fabric and clothing.

That’s where I bought my first silk áo dài, it was a more modern style with short sleeves and a shorter skirt, but it was beautiful with reddish-burnt orange fabric and golden designs sewn in.

The CityWhen we headed back into the city again we stopped at Lam Vien Square where abstract glass buildings perch above a concrete park polished to a shine for kids to ride mini bikes and hover boards on. The Square sits just a road away from Ho Xuan Huong Lake.

Pongour Falls

The next set of waterfalls we went to was Pongour Falls. They were about an hour away from the place we were staying, and the drive through the mountains and the countryside was bumpy and car-sick inducing, but luckily, this time, the climb down to see the falls was much easier.

Coming to a country of which I share heritage with was a very complicated experience. I knew that to the Vietnamese we were just American tourists who may or may not have some vague similar features. And while some were very eager to speak to us and connect because they knew that we were part Vietnamese or they were excited to meet Americans there were also people who expressed in one way or another their general dislike of us. I was semi prepared to deal with this issue because it made sense for them too either love us or hate us because we were Vietnamese American. However, I was not prepared to deal outright prejudice.

And this is not to make people fear exploring their heritage and where they come from. By all means fly halfway across the world and learn about your name and the food that you eat and the traditions your family has. I did, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’m already planning on doing it again. But the world has so many different kinds of people and places, it’s just that unfortunately while they may coexist they don’t always welcome you with open arms. However, there are the select few that will teach you about yourself, their world and invite you in.